Sunday, July 22, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Why stand your ground in a movie theater?

Of this much we can be fairly certain. During his long career as a law enforcement officer, Curtis Reeves was an apt pupil. Less evident is whether he learned anything.

Reeves is facing trial on second-degree murder and aggravated battery charges in the shooting death of 43-year-old Chad Oulson during a senseless dispute over a cellphone while waiting for a movie to begin at the Cobb Grove 16 cinema in Wesley Chapel in January 2014.

This week, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Barthle has been presiding over a hearing to determine if Reeves' claim that he was defending himself under Florida's often-abused "stand your ground'' law is applicable in this case. If she decides in Reeves' favor, the 74-year-old retired Tampa Police Department captain would walk free. And Oulson's widow still would be left to raise her daughter by herself.

We know the basics. While sitting through previews of coming attractions before the screening of Lone Survivor, Reeves became annoyed and complained that Oulson was texting on his cellphone. After Oulson essentially told Reeves to, well … insert the multiple variations of the f-bomb here … the older man complained to the theater's manager.

The dispute soon escalated, and when Oulson tossed some popcorn and perhaps hurled his cellphone at Reeves, the former cop pulled out a gun and fatally shot the younger man. We pause here to remind everyone this whole thing began over a cellphone.

Oulson may have behaved boorishly in the theater. He may have used profanity. Does that justify shooting him in the chest?

That is the problem with too many guns throughout our society. Perhaps in another time, before everyone felt they had to channel their inner Steven Seagal by packing heat to pick up a loaf of bread, or walk the dog, or go to a movie, the dustup between Reeves and Oulson would have been resolved by a few well-chosen expletives and that would be that. Now we shoot each other.

And if Oulson did indeed toss his cellphone at an unarmed Reeves, he would have been subject to criminal charges of assault and battery, which is surely better than being dead.

During his questioning of Reeves, defense attorney Richard Escobar produced an incredible number of certificates the officer had received during his more than 30-year law enforcement career. Reeves had been recognized for successfully participating in all manner of courses and seminars conducted by the FBI, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the National Rifle Association and numerous other public safety/first responder organizations.

To bolster Reeves' extensive training and police officer bona fides, Escobar detailed his client's expertise in the use of firearms, hostage negotiations, police department personnel management, public safety, defusing tense crowd situations, SWAT training, bomb disposal and on and on and on.

You had to wonder with all the classes and seminars and training programs Reeves attended if he ever had time to actually patrol the mean streets of Tampa. But on paper, Reeves was an exceptionally well-trained and able police officer of more than three decades' standing.

It was all very, very impressive.

Except for one nagging thing.

Talk to any police officer and he or she can regale you with stories of dealing with very difficult and stressful situations. It's the nature of the job.

But for all those certificates, plaques and diplomas attesting to Reeves' vast knowledge of police work, apparently he never took a class on how to simply move to a different seat in a movie theater if he found himself dealing with an unruly patron.

If anyone should have known how to defuse the tiff with Oulson, it should have been a 71-year-old former police officer with 30-plus years of experience (and the certificates to prove it) in calming down agitated people.

Merely because Florida's murky "stand your ground" law does not require one to retreat from a potentially dangerous situation if they feel they are at risk doesn't negate the fact that backing off and letting cooler heads prevail in the midst of an inane disagreement over a cellphone in a movie theater would be the smarter thing to do.

But perhaps this is the inevitable result when all-too-easy access to guns and the irrational readiness to use them trumps common sense.

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